Secret Sprawl

Will the Midway Business Park be included in East County Sector Plan revisions?

A meeting at the Burlington Library on June 12 should have been dull enough to drive spiders from the room. An advisory committee was deciding how to decide to change something, but the room was packed and the discussion threatened to draw flies.

Before the meeting began, Susan Frazier stood up and demanded to be heard. The unofficial spokesperson for a group of citizens, she explained that TVA had been sending notices to property owners about building a high-voltage transmission line across East Knox County. No one from TVA was at the meeting, and the item was not on the agenda, but it had everything to do with the business at hand: amending the East County Sector Plan, a set of community-drafted guidelines governing growth and development on county land between the Holston and French Broad Rivers. Frazier wound up being seated at the table as a member of the East Sector Plan Advisory Committee, joining six other community leaders and a representative of the local business association.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) assembled the committee, and it is MPC's job to maintain sector plans for the county, as required by the 1998 Growth Policy Act. The first plan, the 15-Year East County Sector Plan, was drafted in December 2000 and adopted by City Council and County Commission a month later. County Commission amended the sector plan in 2006 to accommodate the Midway Business Park, but Chancellor Fansler recently ruled that the amendment was improper.

Perhaps because they saw the writing on the wall, MPC initiated revisions to the East County Sector Plan earlier this year, saying the City Charter demands they revisit plans every five years. Citizens are wary because of the way the Midway proposal has been handled so far.

The sector plan adopted in 2000 specifically addresses business parks, allowing for a new facility near the Strawberry Plains Pike/I-40 interchange and expansion of the Forks of the River Industrial Park and an industrial area near Andrew Johnson Highway. It allows for commercial and office development at the Midway Road interchange, but says, "No additional commercial rezonings should be allowed for Midway Road (south of the interchange), Thorngrove Pike (east and west of the interchange) and S. Carter School Road (north of the interchange)."

The sector plan was created by surveying residents and businesses in the area and conducting a series of public meetings, but late in the process the Development Corporation tried to add a business park at the Midway interchange. Residents resisted and were able to keep the site out of the final plan. They thought they had won.

A few years later, MPC looked at 12 potential business parks around the county and selected the Midway Road site as the best, then asked County Commission to amend the sector plan and rezone the rural land to industrial use. The proposal passed 16-3, and the Development Corporation purchased more than $10 million worth of land.

Last year, commission considered three proposals for sewer service for the business park, but that decision was put on hold while the lawsuit over the rezonings played out. To date, the county has not committed any money to planning or constructing a business park, nor to providing utilities to the area. Some suspect they are saving those big decisions for last, so it will be harder to refuse to spend the millions; others think the business park is just a ruse for getting sewer lines built, which will enable all sorts of development.

The TVA transmission-line proposal was a surprise, reviving an 80-year-old easement that once linked the Waterville Dam on the Pigeon River to electricity consumers as far away as Whittle Springs. TVA lists 14 active transmission-line projects on its Web site, but the East Knox project is not listed. While residents have been encouraged by their recent victory in court and by MPC's willingness to work with them, they will not let their guard down. As the revision process gets going, they will be hoping for transparency, but looking for figures in the shadows.